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Plants store energy in the form of carbohydrates (sugars and starches — the products of photosynthesis). When you eat carbohydrates, they are quickly broken down into the sugar molecules you burn for energy. You can only store about 12 hours worth of sugar in your liver and your bloodstream; any excess is stored as fat, which can be broken down if your body needs extra energy in the future.


Carbohydrates contain single sugars or combinations of sugars. Glucose is an example of a single sugar. Sucrose or common table sugar is a double sugar. Starch contains thousands of sugar molecules bound together, while fiber contains millions of sugars bound together so tightly that your body cannot break them down. Only single sugars can pass from your intestines into your bloodstream. Double, triple, other combinations of sugars and starches must first be split into single sugars before they can be absorbed. These reactions occur so rapidly in your intestines that most starches cause rises in blood sugar that are not much lower than those of single sugars. In nature, sugars and starches are always paired with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber. Our ancestors, in their long quest for food that stores better, tastes better and is easier to prepare, learned to remove the starches and sugars from the other nutrients, giving us the first "junk" food. Food manufacturers in the twentieth century perfected the process of taking highly nutritious plants and turning them into all kinds of nutritionally empty products – soft drinks, juices, cookies, crackers, chips, bakery products, sugar coated breakfast cereals – the list goes on and on. We now have endless choices of food loaded with sugar, white flour and other refined carbohydrates. Most of the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber have been stripped away. We now have laws that require manufacturers to add some of the B vitamins back into flour, and vitamins and minerals are added to some brands of breakfast cereals and other foods, but we don't have any idea what's still missing. Don't settle for "fortified" foods. You can be sure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs to process carbohydrates and stay healthy, by eating your carbohydrates the way nature intended – IN fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.  

How Refined Carbohydrates Can Harm You

All refined sugars and most refined grain products (anything made from flour, milled corn or white rice) have had vitamins, minerals and other nutrients removed in processing. Some but not all of these nutrients may be added back in enriched flours or fortified foods.

From 1600 to 1930, more North Americans died from the vitamin deficiency diseases, beriberi and pellagra, than from any other cause. These diseases disappeared when governments legislated that all flour had to have three vitamins, thiamin, niacin and riboflavin left in or added back. Over the last 70 years, the incidence of heart attacks in the United States had been increasing until Congress legislated that folic acid must be left in or added back to flour; now the heart attack rate is decreasing. However, diabetes and obesity continue to increase at alarming rates in all age groups.

Where carbohydrates are found in plants, the B vitamins are also present. Carbohydrates are combinations of sugars, either as single sugars or chains of sugars from two to millions. When you eat carbohydrates, enzymes in your intestines break them down into single sugars and only single sugars can pass from your intestines into your bloodstream, where they can be used for energy, stored as sugar in your liver or muscles or be converted to fat. Many different chemical reactions then break down sugar one step at a time to release energy. Each reaction must be started by an individual chemical called an enzyme and the B vitamins are parts of these enzymes that start the reactions that break sugar into energy.

If any of the B vitamins are not available, the conversion of carbohydrates to energy is blocked. Instead, the carbohydrates are converted to into fat which:

  • raises blood levels of triglycerides;
  • uses up the good HDL cholesterol, which lowers blood levels of HDL and increases risk for heart attacks;
  • is stored in fat cells primarily in your abdomen;
  • helps form plaques in arteries, which makes them stiff and raises blood pressure; and
  • blocks insulin receptors on cells so you cannot respond adequately to insulin. This causes you to produce more insulin, which makes you hungrier, makes you store more fat, and leads to diabetes in susceptible people.

When you eat carbohydrates that have been separated from the B vitamins, minerals and perhaps other nutrients which have not yet been identified, you increase your risk for diabetes, obesity, heart attacks and high blood pressure. We do not have enough dependable research to know if taking the B vitamins separately (in other foods or supplements) is as healthful as eating the B vitamins as they come in nature, paired directly with the carbohydrates in whole grains and other seeds, vegetables and fruits.


July 27th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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